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12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in Houston

Written by Lana Law

If you are looking for culture, dining, shopping, unique attractions, and fun experiences, you'll find no shortage of things to do in Houston. This is the fourth largest city in the United States and home to the famous Space Center Houston, renowned chefs, inspiring museums, and beautiful green spaces, complete with a bayou running through the heart of the city. Depending on your travel dates, you may even be able to take in a sports game or enjoy Houston's signature event, the Livestock Show and Rodeo.

Houston makes a great destination for a weekend getaway, with direct flights from all over North America. Combine a trip to Houston with an excursion to nearby Galveston, less than an hour away, for a mix of big city and island life. For a complete look at things to do, see our list of top attractions in Houston.

See also: Where to Stay in Houston

1. Visit Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston

Space Center Houston | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Space Center Houston, the official visitor center of NASA's Johnson Space Center, is a must-see attraction in Houston. And with the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, now is a perfect time to visit.

This is a huge complex, where you can walk through the space shuttle replica Independence and the enormous shuttle carrier aircraft it's mounted on. In the visitor center, you can wander inside a replica of America's first space station, Skylab, and touch a rock from the moon. This is also the place to learn about NASA's upcoming missions, including travel to Mars. If you are here on a Friday around noon, you can even meet an astronaut.

From the visitor center, you can take an open-air tram tour to Johnson Space Center, home of mission control, to see where astronauts train for space missions. This tour also takes you to Rocket Park to see actual rockets on display. Tickets are free but limited, and you can get a timed ticket to avoid waiting in lines.

If you want to experience something truly unique, sign up for a Level 9 Tour and enjoy a behind-the-scenes look at Johnson Space Center. You can see the Buoyancy Lab, the ISS Mission Control, and simulation labs, along with other areas off limits on regular tours, and possibly even encounter an astronaut. This is a one-of-a-kind experience, and only 12 tickets are sold per day for this exclusive, four- to five-hour VIP tour. Tours begin at the Space Center Houston, which you are free to explore with the purchase of this ticket.

A convenient way to visit the Houston Space Center during your trip to Houston is on NASA's Space Center Houston and City Sightseeing Tour, which includes free admission to the space center, as well as a bonus 1.5-hour open-air bus tour of the city's top sights.

Address: 1601 Nasa Pkwy, Houston, Texas

Official Site: https://spacecenter.org/

2. Explore Houston's Museum District


Museum of Fine Arts, Houston | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

The Museum District is one of Houston's greatest cultural attractions, with 19 museums residing in this beautiful area of downtown. Eleven of these are free to the public. Highlights include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Children's Museum of Houston, the Menil Collection, the Holocaust Museum, and the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, to name just a few. Also in this area is the lovely Hermann Park, with the Houston Zoo and the Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Most of the museums are within easy walking distance of each other, although the Menil and the Rothko Chapel are a little farther out. Museums that are free of charge include: The Menil Collection, Rothko Chapel, Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Lawndale Art Center, Houston Museum of African American Culture, Moody Center for the Arts, and the Houston Center for photography.

Address: 1001 Bissonnet Street, Houston, Texas

3. Walk, Bike, or Paddle in Buffalo Bayou Park

Buffalo Bayou Park is a beautiful 160-acre green space running through the city, with the slow moving waters of Buffalo Bayou as its centerpiece. This urban park is home to extensive walking and biking trails, a dog park, sculptures, and plenty of shady areas to relax.
Biking at Buffalo Bayou Park | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Buffalo Bayou Park is a beautiful 160-acre green space running through the city, with the slow moving waters of Buffalo Bayou as its centerpiece. This urban park is home to extensive walking and biking trails, a dog park, sculptures, and plenty of shady areas to relax.

If you want to get active and enjoy some of the great outdoors, rent a kayak, canoe, or stand up paddleboard and enjoy a paddle along the bayou. Rentals are available at the park, and various tours are offered, ranging from one to three hours in length. Similarly, guided cycling tours are also available from outfitters in the city.

A particularly unique site in Buffalo Bayou Park is the Cistern, an old underground drinking-water reservoir from 1926, which now hosts changing art installations. Today, visitors can go on a short guided tour.

The park is also home to a huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats that inhabit the Waugh Drive Bridge. Approximately 250,000 of them fly out from the bridge each evening at sunset.

Official Site: https://buffalobayou.org/visit/

4. Visit the Houston Zoo

Visit the Houston Zoo

Visit the Houston Zoo

Set on 55 acres in Hermann Park, the Houston Zoo is one of the city's star attractions, popular with locals and visitors. The zoo is home to more than 6,000 exotic and indigenous animals and contains an education center and children's zoo. Some of the highlights include feeding the giraffes, seeing marine life up close in the aquarium, and watching sea lions and otters frolicking about.

Other attractions in Hermann Park are the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Miller Outdoor Theatre, a Japanese Garden, and McGovern Centennial Garden. Also fun is a paddle boat trip on McGovern Lake, or a stroll along the park's walking trails.

Address: 6200 Hermann Park Drive, Houston

Official Site: www.houstonzoo.org

5. Discover Houston's Street Art

Houston Street Art

Houston Street Art | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

While it is often overlooked by tourists, Houston's street art, or what many people know as graffiti, is outstanding, with installations by some of the top names in street art throughout the US and around the world, including COPE2 and Houston's own Gonzo247. These colorful murals adorn the walls of establishments in various locations throughout the city and are well worth taking the time to drive around and see.

The unofficial curator of Houston's street art is the charismatic artist known as Gonzo247. He is one of the city's most famous street artists and the creator of the giant "Houston is Inspired" mural at the corner of Travis and Preston Streets and the smaller "Houston" mural at Leeland and St. Emanuel Streets. This latter area is also home to a large concentration of impressive installations that grace the walls of numerous one- and two-story buildings off Leeland Street at Chartres Street and St. Emanuel Street. But works can be found scattered all over the city on walls of various sizes. To find a map of mural locations check out the HUE Mural Festival.

Popular Tours

6. Shop the Vintage Stores on 19th Street in The Heights

Stores on 19th Street

Stores on 19th Street | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

For vintage clothing, retro décor, and old collectibles, 19th Street in The Heights is the place to go. This funky area has all kinds of quirky shops selling everything from evening gowns to casual clothing, as well as jewelry, footwear, household gadgets, and all kinds of unique items. This is also a good place to shop for gifts. The merchandise is not all vintage; some places sell new pieces or a mix of new and old. Even if you are not looking to buy anything, the whole area is worth seeing and offers a one-of-a-kind shopping experience.

7. Day Trip to Galveston

Pleasure Pier in Galveston

The beautiful beaches of Galveston are less than an hour away from Houston. If you are looking for a quick break from the city, head out to Galveston for a little time soaking up the sun, wandering through the historic downtown, and dining at a seaside restaurant. Miles of endless beach and shallow, turquoise water stretch along the ocean front. At the heart of the beach action is Pleasure Pier.

Other attractions to visit include the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum, the Texas Seaport Museum, and the Strand Historic District. If you are traveling with the family, head to Moody Gardens.

If you don't have your own car or want to keep things simple, you can also take an organized tour to the island. One option that combines some sightseeing in Houston is the Houston Sightseeing Tour and Galveston Day Trip. This includes a 90-minute double-decker bus tour of Houston and transportation to and from Galveston, where you'll have free time to explore on your own.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Galveston

8. Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Attend the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo | Ed Schipul / photo modified

Houston's biggest annual event, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is a fun-filled, 19-day event that brings the whole city out to celebrate in February or March. If you are going to be here during this time, you are in luck, and if you are wondering when to visit Houston, this might be the time to plan your trip. This is an activity the whole family can enjoy, and it's so much more than just a rodeo and livestock show.

If this is your first time to an event of this kind, you will be pleasantly surprised by the diversity of things to do. On the grounds are carnival rides, games, and food stands, and enough entertainment to keep you busy indefinitely. At the rodeo events, which you will need tickets to attend, see the cowboys showing off their skills in a variety of areas. In the evening, some of the biggest names in music perform on stage. Check out the concert listing in advance and secure tickets.

If you only have one day to attend this fantastic show, spend a morning or afternoon wandering the grounds and enjoying the carnival, see some of the finest farm animals on display at the Livestock Show, then take in a rodeo event or two to see the cowboys in action, and spend the evening at a concert. Another not-to-be-missed event is the Downtown Rodeo Parade.

Official site: www.rodeohouston.com

9. See a Sports Game

Minute Maid Park

Minute Maid Park | Roy Luck / photo modified

When it comes to seeing a game in Houston, sports fans have plenty of options, and whether it's football, baseball, basketball, or soccer, the city takes its sports seriously. Houston is home to the Houston Texans (NFL), the Houston Astros (MLB), and the Houston Rockets (NBA). The Texans play at the NRG Stadium, formerly Reliant Stadium, which is also the venue for the 2017 Super Bowl. The Toyota Center in downtown Houston is home to the Rockets, and the Astros play at Minute Maid Park, also in the city center.

For Soccer fans, Houston is home to the Houston Dynamo (MLS) and Houston Dash (NWSL), who play their home games at the BBVA Compass Stadium.

Check to see if there is a home game during your stay.

10. Discover Unique Dining Experiences in Houston

Houston Cuisine on a Culinary Tour

Houston Cuisine | Photo Copyright: Lana Law

Chefs in Houston have put this city on the culinary map of America, and dining here is an attraction in and of itself. Possibilities are almost endless, ranging from traditional southern dishes to Latin American, Asian, Mexican, and countless other cultural specialties. The number of wonderful dining options is too extensive to list, but some places are too unique not to mention.

From the creative mind of chef Chris Shepherd, One Fifth Houston is a five-year project featuring five unique dining concepts. Each year the restaurant, located in an old church, is completely transformed in theme and cuisine. The first iteration, One Fifth Steak kicked it off, followed by One Fifth Mediterranean. Each new concept begins in September and runs until the end of July.

For high-end Mexican cuisine, discover the flavors of Oaxaca at Xochi, located on the first floor of the Marriott Marquis Houston in downtown Houston. The menu offers a full range of dishes, and includes some exotic options to stir your imagination.

For health-conscious eaters, Vibrant offers healthy meals from breakfast to dinner. Dishes are all gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar-free, and non GMO.

11. Walk through Rice University Campus

Rice University Campus

Rice University Campus | faungg's photos / photo modified

The Rice University Campus is an oasis in downtown Houston and a favorite outdoor space for many Houstonians. Walking and running trails, thousands of mature trees, and lovely old buildings are spread over this 300-acre campus. Also on the grounds are a large number of impressive contemporary artworks that lend to the tranquil atmosphere. Many of these installations are equally, or even more, impressive in the evening when they are lit.

12. Experience the Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park

Waterwall Park

The Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park showcases an impressive multi-story sculptural fountain that sees sheets of water cascading over large concrete walls and sculptures. The structure's semi-circular shape towers 64 feet above you and is fronted by a large arch and 46,500 square feet of water. It's an attraction that needs to be seen to truly be appreciated. This 2.77-acre park, covered with dozens of live oaks, is located in Uptown Houston.

Where to Stay in Houston for Sightseeing

To be close to major attractions and sports venues, it's best to base yourself in or close to downtown. You can find a good selection of luxury and mid-range hotels in the city center, but budget hotels are generally located a short drive away. Below are some highly rated hotels we recommend.

  • Luxury Hotels: One of Houston's oldest hotels, the luxury boutique Lancaster Hotel reopened in late 2018 following a massive and beautifully executed renovation. The stylish design and elegant decor, combined with outstanding service and a prime location in downtown Houston, make this one of the best places to stay in the city.

    Also in a fantastic location in downtown Houston is the Four Seasons Hotel Houston, with always exceptional customer service and a variety of room designs and sizes. The hotel offers Topgolf, where small groups can entertain themselves with some virtual golf and order tasty snacks.

    Other great downtown luxury hotels are Hotel ZaZa Houston, popular for its high-end spa and proximity to the Museum District, and Hilton Americas - Houston, a large, modern hotel close to convention centers and sports stadiums.

  • Mid-Range Hotels: At the top end of the mid-range section but usually quite good value is The Whitehall Houston. This hotel is centrally located and features contemporary, Southern-style rooms.

    An easy walk from the city's convention and sports facilities, the renovated Embassy Suites by Hilton Houston Downtown is an excellent choice for those vacationing with families thanks to its large outdoor pool. The Best Western Plus Downtown Inn & Suites is popular for its outdoor pool and proximity to attractions, including the Downtown Aquarium.

  • Budget Hotels: The best budget hotels are located outside the city center but are only a short drive away. Just a few kilometers west of the downtown core, the Red Roof PLUS+ Houston - Energy Corridor offers pet-friendly options along with free Wi-Fi and breakfast, while La Quinta Inn & Suites Houston Galleria Area (named after the adjacent shopping mall) boasts a swimming pool and hot tub.

    Another good option is the Comfort Suites Northwest Houston at Beltway 8. This hotels offers a pool, free breakfast and Wi-Fi, and rooms come with microwaves and refrigerators.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Houston

  • Save Money with a Pass: If you're planning a busy schedule of sightseeing, consider purchasing the great-value Houston CityPASS, which gives you free admission to five of the city's top attractions, including Space Center Houston, the Downtown Aquarium, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The pass is valid for up to nine days, allowing you maximum flexibility when planning your itinerary.

  • Sightseeing: Explore the city on a Hop-on Sightseeing Tour of Houston. This 75-minute tour on an open-top double-decker bus will take you past the highlights while you listen to an audio commentary and learn about the history.

  • Texas Maps and Info: If you are planning a road trip through Texas, you can order away for a free copy of the Texas Travel Guide and Official Travel Map at www.TravelTexas.com.

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Texas Cities: Each of the metropolitan areas in Texas offers their own unique sites and character. Use our travel guides to explore the attractions of San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. And if you want to plan your stay in these places, see our articles on the top resorts in Houston, Dallas, and Austin.

West Texas: To experience a completely different side of the country, head to West Texas. Due to the vastness of the area, this is best done as a road trip. You can begin by hitting Amarillo and Lubbock and then make the drive down to beautiful Big Bend National Park, where you'll find an incredible desert landscape, along with outstanding hiking trails and campgrounds. On the edge of the park, you can find some luxury accommodation with the help of our list of the Best Places to Stay near Big Bend National Park. When you're done here, head over to El Paso.

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